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Cook County opioid deaths tell ‘grim story’ as fatalities on track to double from last year, chief medical examiner says

The Chicago Recovery Alliance van at Roosevelt Road and Whipple Street on Aug. 18, 2017. Heroin users come and go to exchange needles as well as pick up clean supplies.

The Chicago Recovery Alliance van at Roosevelt Road and Whipple Street on Aug. 18, 2017. Heroin users come and go to exchange needles as well as pick up clean supplies. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)

Cook County is grappling with twice the amount of reported opioid-related deaths compared with this period last year, the medical examiner’s office announced Tuesday amid skyrocketing caseloads during the coronavirus outbreak.

In 2020, the county’s deaths ruled as opioid overdoses are on track to double last year’s total number of opioid-related cases, the chief medical examiner, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, said at a Tuesday news conference. The fatalities, similar to those from the coronavirus and gun violence crises, are disproportionately affecting Black people, she added. The majority stem from Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the briefing was convened “to sound the alarm” as the three overlapping epidemics devastate the county’s most vulnerable populations.

“This year continues to illuminate the dangerous consequences we face as a result of centuries — centuries — of racial inequity,” Preckwinkle said. “The victims of the opioid epidemic have been quietly dying around us. We must be their voice to prevent future, needless, preventable deaths plaguing our community.”

Between Jan. 1 and Monday, 773 opioid overdose deaths were logged in Cook County, with 580 more pending cases, Arunkumar said. Given that about 70% to 80% of pending cases are ruled as opioid-related, that means about 1,200 such deaths are expected to be tallied for that time period, Arunkumar said.

Last year, there were 605 opioid overdose deathsfrom Jan. 1 to July 13, and by the end of the year, 1,267 cases were confirmed to be opioid-related, Arunkumar said. That number was 1,148 in 2018.

Out of the confirmed 773 cases so far this year, 63% of the victims were Black and/or Latino, with 45- to 55-year-old males most likely to die from an overdose, Arunkumar said. Fentanyl, an exponentially deadlier synthetic opioid, was blamed for the majority of cases.

“The numbers tell a grim story,” Arunkumar said about the opioid overdose deaths. “We’ll never get used to the tragedy that each death represents.”

While more analysis needs to be done on the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on opioid deaths, officials worry that the isolation and health scares are keeping people experiencing overdoses from seeking help. Emergency department volumes have decreased since the pandemic started, said Dr. Steven Aks, division chair of emergency medicine and toxicology at Cook County Health.

“What we’d like to say is that it’s safe here. That’s the most important message,” Aks said. “This is extremely alarming with respect to the opioid overdoses. Because for each EMS run that a paramedic brings a patient to the hospital, if they make it to our care they will likely live.”

As Cook County Health emergency room visits related to opioid overdoses remained stagnant, Chicago reported a swell in EMS visits related to opioid overdoses, according to a department of public health alert. From the beginning of the year to the end of May, EMS responses went up about 67% compared with the same time in 2019.

Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health, said a key solution is partnering with law enforcement to “blanket” communities with naloxone, the medication used to reverse opioid overdoses, because the current levels are not “nearly enough.”

On top of the opioid overdose cases, the medical examiner’s office has had to contend with spikes in gun violence homicides this year as well as the surge of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The three crises are pushing the office’s caseload to top 9,000 in the coming days — compared with 6,274 cases in all of 2019, Arunkumar said.

“Desperation and hopelessness” are the underlying causes behind the coinciding upswings in gun violence and opioid-related deaths in Cook County, Preckwinkle said.

“Those are similar causes,” Preckwinkle said. “If you look at opioid deaths and if you look at shootings and murders, you overlay them, right, it’s the same community.”

The medical examiner’s office at first attributed this year’s tidal wave of cases to the coronavirus outbreak, but after digging through the numbers, staffers realized opioid overdoses also were ballooning, Arunkumar said. She added that her office, which investigates certain cases out of the annual 40,000-or-so deaths in Cook County, such as unnatural deaths, are “by and large preventable.”

“While we concentrate on our mission to establish the cause and manner of death for cases that fall under our jurisdiction, we do not accept that they had to occur,” Arunkumar said.

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